'...that strange glow, just a few fields east of happiness.'
As if I could ever speak in any language but the superlative about anything that Sebastian Barry writes?
I know I've only read one other, but A Long Long Way still for me the best book that never won the Booker prize, and all the evidence I would ever need that Sebastian is incapable of writing a duff line.
But I'm also mindful of something else I have read recently.
A very revealing piece by Robert McCrum here.
An overview of changes in the literary world of the last ten years. Blogs get a mention and with it the suggestion that as the home of the Common Reader they may generate more heat than light. It was all enough to set me thinking because in one respect he's very right. It's certainly hard to temper enthusiasm and not plunge overboard without a lifebelt when a book touches your heart.
That said it would seem I'll never learn.
Some books are just a blessing.
To read them is to be elevated to some higher literary plain and it would seem that any topic happening to stray into Sebastian Barry's poetic writing firmament can expect to get the treatment. It's difficult not to sink into descriptive cliche but the book is hauntingly elegiac and here it is the life of Roseanne McNulty which is so beautifully crafted in such exquisitely carved prose. Quite breathtaking to read line after line of it to be honest and this is most certainly not a book to rush. I just savoured every single word and couldn't bear to turn the final page.
Roseanne may be almost a hundred years old, no one can be sure, but much of her life has been spent in the Roscommon Mental Hospital. Through Roseanne's own telling of her story alongside the Commonplace journal of her psychiatrist, Dr Grene, the sad story of her life slowly emerges.
It's sadder than sad, it's heartbreaking and beneath it all Ireland glistens pure emerald, its island history replete with flaws,
'a country of cupboards, every one with a skeleton in it, especially after the civil war, no one was exempt.'
Glinting through small chinks in Roseanne's story, history told at a slant, so here's a book that you emerge from both informed as well as strangely uplifted, if a little emotionally wrung out. Sebastian Barry constantly reminding his reader that all may not be as it seems, and the untrustworthiness of any historical account is placed under the microscopic lens as Roseanna recounts her memories alongside Dr Grene's account. Roseanne witnessing events as a child, saw only what a child could see and knew only what, as a child, she had been told, whilst knowing full and well that 'a child is never the author of his own history.'
'It makes me a little dizzy to contemplate the possibility that everything I remember may not be real, I suppose. There was so much turmoil at that time that - that what? I took refuge in other impossible histories, in dreams, in fantasies? I don't know.'
This is the world of 'grief as a wailing of the soul' so prepare for a compelling and deeply satisfying novel, and one that leaves a profound and lasting impression about a woman who describes herself thus,
'I am only a thing left over, a remnant woman, and I do not even look like a human being no more, but a scraggy stretch of skin and bone in a bleak skirt and blouse...I sit here in my niche like a songless robin, no like a mouse that died under the hearthstone where it was warm, and lies now like a mummy in the pyramids.'
And a doctor who must decide
'What is wrong about her account if she sincerely believes it? Is not most history written in a sort of wayward sincerity? I suspect so....the one thing that is fatal in the reading of an impromptu history is a wrongful desire for accuracy. There is no such thing.'
If I have the vaguest hint of a shadow of the merest sliver of a doubt it concerns the ending.
Far be it from me to unplait Sebastian's carefully woven and intricately wrought, nay masterly, storytelling, but in my very humble opinion the book could have easily coped with uncertainty in its final pages, in fact much within suggested that would be the case. Had Sebastian gently left me wandering in that melancholy but deeply poetic place to which he seems to transport a reader I would have thrived. But let nothing mar the accolades, the writing is far far too memorable for anything so minor to stand in its way.
So back to Robert. I do so agree with what he says but in this instance make no apology, sometimes a lot of heat encourages readers to discover their own light and that feels like no bad thing to me.